What is the treatment for a chest infection?
Although most chest infections are mild and improve on their own, some cases can be very serious, even life-threatening. A bout of infection of the large airways (bronchi) in the lungs (acute bronchitis) usually gets better on its own within 7-10 days without any medicines. If you suspect that you have a severe infection of the lung (pneumonia), you should see a GP.
What about antibiotics?
Antibiotics are medicines used for infections caused by germs (bacteria) and don't work on viruses. As bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, your recovery will rarely be helped by taking antibiotics. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily for bronchitis can cause side-effects and do more harm than good.
Pneumonia, unlike bronchitis, is often caused by a germ (bacterium) and may need treatment with antibiotics. If you have mild pneumonia, you can take antibiotics as tablets at home. If the pneumonia is more serious, antibiotics are given through a drip into a vein (intravenously) in hospital.
If the pneumonia is very severe, or caused by aggressive types of bacteria (such as legionella in Legionnaires' disease), you may need to be moved to an intensive care unit in the hospital.
If you have a chest infection, you should:
- Have plenty of rest.
- Drink lots of fluid to prevent your body becoming lacking in fluids (dehydrated) and to help keep the mucus in your lungs thin and easier to cough up.
- Inhale steam vapour, perhaps with added menthol. This can help to clear the mucus from your chest. Never use hot water for a child's cough, in case they get scalded by accident
- Avoid lying flat at night to help keep your chest clear of mucus and make it easier to breathe.
- Take paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce high temperature (fever) and to ease any aches, pains and headaches. (Note: children aged less than 16 years should not take aspirin.)
- If you smoke, you should try to stop smoking for good. Bronchitis, chest infections and serious lung diseases are more common in smokers.
- If your throat is sore from coughing, you can relieve the discomfort with a warm drink of honey and lemon.
What about cold and cough remedies?
You can buy many other cold and cough remedies at pharmacies. There is limited evidence of any benefit from taking cold and cough remedies.
Cold and cough remedies often contain several ingredients. Some may make you drowsy. This may be welcome at bedtime if you have difficulty sleeping with a bronchitis. However, do not drive if you are drowsy. Some contain paracetamol, so be careful not to take more than the maximum safe dose of paracetamol if you are already taking paracetamol tablets.
Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines should not be given to children aged less than 6 years. There is no evidence that they work and they can cause side-effects, such as allergic reactions, effects on sleep, or hallucinations. These medicines are available for children aged 6-12 years but they are also best avoided in this age group. If you are pregnant, make sure the pharmacist knows, as not all medicines may be suitable for you.
Note: paracetamol and ibuprofen are not classed as cough and cold medicines and can still be given to children.
What is the outlook (prognosis)?
Infection of the large airways (bronchi) in the lungs (acute bronchitis) usually clears without any complications. Occasionally, the infection travels to the lung tissue to cause a serious lung infection (pneumonia).
If you have pneumonia and are well enough to be looked after at home, your outlook is very good. If you need to be looked after in hospital, the outlook is still usually good - but not quite as good. The outlook is also not as good for people who also have long-term illnesses such as lung disease, heart failure or diabetes.
Further reading and references
Guidelines for the management of community acquired pneumonia in adults; British Thoracic Society (2009), Thorax Vol 64 Sup III
Guidelines for the management of adult lower respiratory tract infections; European Respiratory Society and European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (September 2011)
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for children; Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), 2009
Antibiotic awareness resources: key messages on antibiotic use; Public Health England
I usually wake up with this weird feeling my lower throat/chest. There is no pain. I don't feel blockage in my throat or feel like something needs cleared but I cough to think it helps somehow. It's...sara59945
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